While many on the tech scene are extremely familiar with Twitter, I’ve heard several in the over-30 crowd remark recently that they’ve either never used Twitter, rarely use it, or have questions about the intent or functionality. This post is mostly for those who don’t already use Twitter on a regular basis.
Twitter is an Internet microblogging service created in March, 2006, by Jack Dorsey (@jack), who later also founded Square (which we reviewed here last year.) Twitter grew up in the world of SMS text messaging, allowing users to post status updates of up to 140 characters in length using the cell phone technology available at the time. SMS text messaging actually has a 160 character limit, but twitter reserves 20 characters for the user’s address.
Many users’ Twitter feeds represent stream of consciousness musings or short status updates on their day’s activities. Twitter feeds maintained by a brand or limited to a specific topic are also very common. An example of a single tweet is shown below.
Twitter allows a user to follow another’s Twitter feed, and receive those tweets in a variety of means including via the original SMS.
Twitter usernames are aways preceded by the @ symbol, such as @snnyc. All usernames must be unique. In certain instances, you see text displayed just prior to the @ symbol as well. That text is a descriptive name, and does not need to be unique. The use of the @ symbol has caused some confusion given it’s prior use as a separator in e-mail addresses. The two uses are distinct and unrelated, so you can forget what you know about e-mail for the moment.
Hashtags are preceded by the pound sign #, and typically mark a general topic that you think others may be looking for or talking about. These days, it’s common to see a Twitter hashtag pop up at the beginning of a television show, as the network hopes that you’ll discuss the show using the specified hashtag, potentially raising the show’s profile among would-be watchers. An example might be #NCIS. Hashtags are often used for trending news topics as well.
Twitter offers the option to retweet a tweet that you’ve seen posted from another user. Some posts will blatantly ask for re-tweets in an effort to reach a larger audience. I somewhat regularly retweet tech links that I find interesting.
At the time of this writing, Twitter is #10 on Alexa’s list of top sites on the Internet, behind the likes of Google (#1), Facebook (#2) and YouTube (#3). As of last Fall, Twitter officially has 100,000,000 users, as reported by Time. Some of the biggest stories of the year drove thousands of tweets per second.
These days the types of Twitter clients have proliferated. In addition to using SMS or Twitter.com, users can post updates, follow other users and browse particular topics from: clients for Apple’s iOS and Mac OS X, Google Android, Microsoft Windows, and even from 3rd-party clients for Linux. Functionality has been added over time as well, in keeping with web and mobile technical advancements. With the modern-day Twitter client for Apple iOS, for instance, one can post a tweet that includes both a photo and one’s current location derived via the phone’s GPS function.
Most web content creators now offer the option to easily tweet their content or follow them, along with other actions such as Liking them on Facebook.
Many web applications are taking advantage of Twitter’s proliferation and adding it to their own product. For instance, the business networking site LinkedIn allows its users to add their Twitter username, automatically include their tweets in their LinkedIn profile, and broadcast tweets out to one’s LinkedIn network. I would never take advantage of this particular integration myself, as occasionally I tweet a political or religious comment that I’d rather not tie directly to the resume that would-be employers often see first. On the other hand, I do like the Twitter integration in the right column of this blog, which we’ll talk more about in a few paragraphs.
Most large companies now actively monitor Twitter for mentions of their brand or products. For instance, last year I mentioned State Farm in a tweet, and received a response from @StateFarm. More recently, I tweeted a technical question to @mediatemple regarding their WordPress hosting service, and received the answer by reply in about four minutes. Among other topics, it’s probably wise not to tweet about job interviews or business dealings that have yet to be finalized, as any organizations mentioned will notice.
Given the convenience of communicating to an audience, Twitter has become a key tool in communicating among like-minded participants in political and social movements. Many have suggested that Twitter helped amplify the 2011 Egyptian revolution and ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak. More recently, Occupy Wall Street (@OccupyWallSt) has used Twitter and other social media to communicate their cause. In part due to Twitter’s power of communication, the FCC is now seeking feedback on whether it is appropriate for law enforcement to have the ability to shut down cell phone networks in certain instances. (I vote no.)
Twitter offers two levels of openness. You can allow anyone, including total strangers, to follow you, as probably the majority of users do. That’s kind of the point on Twitter. Or you can set yourself up to protect your tweets so that only people who you allow can follow you, more in keeping with a Facebook experience. Second, you can post a public tweet or alternately send a direct message to an individual recipient, the latter of which is supposed to be private. Despite the fact that it’s fairly simple to use, several people have fallen victim to publicly tweeting something that they meant to keep private. As Representative Anthony Weiner recently reminded us all, never tweet something that you wouldn’t want to read about in The New York Times, or you soon may be reading there about your own downfall. The best policy is to use enough discretion up front that you welcome the wider world to read any of your tweets should they be interested.
Secondarily, exercise discretion over including your location on your tweets, either in the text itself or as a location tag from your GPS-enabled smartphone. It’s probably not the best idea to provide real-time tweets describing your vacation while you’re 1500 miles from home. Second, it’s probably not wise to include a location tag on a message such as “Sitting on my couch at home” that reveals the precise location of your residence. Finally, be aware that your photo can contain a geotag revealing the location that it was taken. The US Military is becoming sensitive to soldiers creating geotagged photos of military bases and operations that our enemies could use to their advantage.
I personally use Twitter for basically two things. First, you’ll note the most recent posts from my Twitter feed @snnyc to the right, close to the top of this blog. While I can’t write a full article as often as I’d like, there are many items of significance going on in the tech industry at any time. I attempt to make the tweets relevant to readers of the snnyc blog, versus, say, covering where I ate lunch that day. And when I do post a new full-length article on my blog, I tweet out a link as well to potentially draw in a few curious readers. In the last week, Twitter referred 15 readers to my blog, as reported by Google Analytics.
Secondly, I use Twitter as a primary news source. Having chosen to follow the Twitter feeds of a decent number of journalists, politicians, newsmakers, comedians and technical sources, my Twitter account’s home screen on my iPhone typically contains several recent mentions of any developing story. By following enough diverse sources, pulling up Twitter on my iPhone is like my own personal version of Google News.
So why use Twitter? I suppose we could just as easily ask, “Why Blog?” Why post your thoughts in a public forum for all the world to see? And why read content that others have posted? Perhaps we all want to feel like our voice matters. We want to feel like we’re a part of something. That we’re connected to others. And while we may be sacrificing true connectedness for digital hyperconnectedness these days, for some of us, that’s better than nothing. So I tweet. And I blog. And I enjoy both a fair amount. Maybe you will too.